Saturday, November 29, 2008


When I left civilisation and returned to England I used to spend a little time trying to increase my ranking in Kartrider, so I was glad to discover that it was still perfectly playable several thousand miles away despite the lag-time one might expect with this distance. Unfortunately, any plans I had to finally attain a coveted rainbow glove were nixed by the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, which left myself and probably most other traders rather preoccupied, if not fighting for survival.

Because of my foray into gaming in Korea, the first time I saw a Kartrider rainbow glove stuck to the back of a white Hyundai I couldn't help but be amused, although this was back in the days before I realised that it wasn't just rainbow gloves, but also driving styles, which had made their way from the online world to the crazy streets of Busan.

One of the first things which struck me - though remarkably not physically - about cars in Busan, was the wide range of colours they seemed to come in. To paraphrase Henry Ford, you could apparently have any colour you wanted as long as it was silver or white. Gradually I noticed a few black cars, and even the occasional red one, but mostly it was silver and white. What's worse, because of the cost of importing foreign cars into the country, there weren't very many of those at all, especially outside the richer areas of the city, which is where I was. So watching the traffic could quickly become a hypnotic display of white and silver Hyundai Accents, and white and blue Bongo trucks, and it serves to remind you that the homogeneous nature of Korea doesn't end on the road. I found it interesting to note though, that in the seventeen months I lived in the country, the roads gradually became slightly more colourful and varied places.

Despite the faceless - or should that be ubiquitous - Stalinesque apartment blocks many people live in, this is thankfully not a completely homogeneous society, and some car owners have clearly made the attempt to customise their cars, with I think you'd have to say, variable results. It can start subtly with some alloys, a new interior and some racing stripes, and accelerate from there.

It's evident that rear wings or spoilers are quite popular, and it seems that the bigger the better. You certainly should make sure it doesn't blend into your car, so it's important to try and make it a completely different colour wherever possible. You might even get a wing with built-in lights.

Making your vehicle multiple colours will certainly get you noticed, and extra points are awarded for the most oversized exhaust. While car graphics in various shapes and sizes are a regular feature of some cars, thinking outside the box and putting your name and blood group on a windscreen is not only different, but quite possibly an interesting anti-theft strategy.

Now so far these additions have been somewhat static. So how about adding a variety of LEDs to your vehicle, to add colour or to blink on and off as you drive through the night? I've seen a lot of these, but they've proven very difficult to photograph, so aside from this:

here are a couple of short videos to illustrate - showing blinking LEDs and blue underside LEDs:

While the streets may be littered with customised Hyundais, it's evident that people do aspire to something a little more exotic, if the discovery that Korean TV is showing British TV series Top Gear is anything to go by. Not being that much of a petrol-head it took me a little while to realise what was wrong with this picture - judging from the admittedly customised licence plate on the Ford Focus RS is six years old. Yes, this could be the oldest Top Gear repeat... in the world. It would still turn heads in Korea though, as would a nice red Audi TT.

Unlike the Ford Focus, the Audi actually was in Korea - I found it in a car showroom in Seoul. It was 69,500,000 won - $47,121 or £30,635 in what's left of my own currency. It's now been so long since I had a full Meniere's attack my own country has let me drive again, so if I'm ever allowed to drive in Korea, I should definitely have one of these shouldn't I? I know to go fully native I should really just drive a white Hyundai Accent, but I think I should really have the Audi to avoid being a sell out, don't you think? They are of course, never going to let me drive in Korea, and even if I could, it's actually too terrifying. So I had to leave my Audi in the Seoul showroom, and console myself with the thought of my Ford Focus stuck in a garage in England waiting for me. It's not quite the same thing.

Now this is one of the stranger things I've seen on the Korean streets, and believe me, there's a lot of competition for that. Is it a fancy vehicle for the elderly or disabled, or is it an exotic golf cart? I just don't know. In England, you see a lot of small vehicles being driven around on the pavements or at the sides of the road by elderly people, but I've never seen anything like them in Korea, and even in England, never anything this fancy. Perhaps it will remain a mystery.

Return to Oz

Before we left Korea, we booked return tickets because they were the same price from the travel agent as singles because of a special offer. It wasn't certain that we'd use them - we thought that if we did we could perhaps come back for a holiday. But once back in England things went wrong almost from the outset.

"I told you I was sick"

I'd been diagnosed with a medical problem in Korea which required treatment, but when I returned home the same tests came back negative. So I got no treatment, but I became more ill - which may or may not have been related. Either way, I had further tests which also came back negative. Still, there was no doubt that I was sick, and that rather flew in the face of what the British tests were telling me.

Finally, a rude doctor, who obviously thought it likely that the pain I was in was all in my mind, prescribed physiotherapy, which due to the slow speed of the process I've yet to be scheduled for. My wife has been furious about the entire experience, and whereas once I would have struggled to understand that anger, now that I've lived in Korea with its instant diagnosis and treatment, I'm incredibly frustrated too, because I have to live with the idea that in the hopefully unlikely event that my problems turn out to be something sinister, by the time the British medical system admits it the damage will have been done.In my weaker moments I've honestly thought about jumping on a plane and returning to Korea to get some treatment and get better, because it would be easier and very much cheaper than trying to pursue private treatment in England, which tends to require sign-off from the NHS doctors in the first place.

When I left Korea, some people said I should continue to write about my experiences back home because they were interested, but England holds no fascination for me so I really wasn't. In truth I did start writing about them, but quickly realised it would quite possibly have been a contender for the world's most negative blog, and who wants to read that? Certainly I didn't want to write it. But please indulge me in relating a few incidents, because I have a feeling these will become important later and highly relevant to my Korean life.

The Housebreaker, The Drug-User, and The Computer Science Graduate

We're very big on the notion of 'class' in Britain, although some people like to pretend there's no such thing and in fact we live in a 'classless' society. Certainly, it isn't like the past, where your social status for life would be defined by the class you were born into, but there's no doubt in my mind that class still exists, and what's more, it's something which is pretty much universal; there's a class system of sorts in Korea, in America and everywhere else, because children do not grow up being treated equally, and the opportunities you are afforded depend on where you were born, and to who to. I was born into a working class family in a decaying industrial northern English city with a high proportion of non-English speakers. I think the word 'poor' is both emotive and subjective, so I wouldn't like to say we were, but we didn't have a lot of money, my mother didn't work because of a medical condition and my father worked in a low-paid manual job which constantly seemed to be under threat. Looking back, I see that I got an education in spite of my schools, rather than because of them, and of my closest circle of friends one became a serial housebreaker, and another a drug addict. It was that kind of environment.

Dirty Looks From Testosterone Girl

So when I say that one of my first experiences back in England was to get annoyed with a working class common-as-dirt girl in a doctors' waiting room, I don't want it to come across as the inevitable middle-class arrogance of someone who has been born into better circumstances. I think life is what you make of it, and if I am arrogant now, and I don't deny that I am, it's because I think we live in a society which increasingly celebrates stupidity and self-centredness and allows people to get away with not bettering themselves. But I don't blame society so much as the people within it, and I find it hard to tolerate the obviously stupid and self-centred. I worked hard to better myself in difficult circumstances. A lot of other people didn't. It's hard for me to be sympathetic towards them.

The girl got agitated because I was in the doctors office for ten minutes, and started asking loudly in the testosterone-fuelled voice many young women seem to have these days, why "it was taking so f*cking long". The tirade of impatience went on. In the absence of an answer the girl finally resorted to scowling at my wife, who, faced with someone who evidently had enough testosterone to fuel a rugby team, felt suitably intimidated. I believe it would be unthinkable for a 17-year-old girl to behave the same way in front of so many adults in Korea, and would probably invite a psychiatric evaluation, but here it's not so surprising, and nobody gets locked up for it.

O2, Brute?

I was on a busy bus travelling out of the city centre, but despite the mass of people around us a young woman had no reservations in broadcasting the contents of her mobile phone conversation to everyone within shouting distance. I appreciate the English language is changing, but personally I'm not sure I'm ready to start answering my phone with the line "Hello you dick 'ed". It transpired that the presumed boyfriend of our local broadcaster, hereafter referred to by the more affectionate name of 'bastard', had gone 'gallivanting' off with three girls, one of whom was a well-known 'slut'.

And so it went on. Loudly. Quite why the 'girl', if such a name doesn't breech the Trades Descriptions Act, felt the rest of us needed to hear about her personal life is beyond me, but she seemed to be one of these pre-Copernicus types of people who believes that the Universe revolves around her. Or maybe she thought she was the star of her own reality TV show. So obviously, we had to hear. Suffice to say it wasn't long before I was cheering on the 'bastard' boyfriend and sincerely hoping that he never returned from his 'gallivanting', while accepting the inevitability that even with this temporary evolutionary escape, it probably still wouldn't be long before our mouthy girl procreated elsewhere ensuring the continued shallowing of the gene-pool.

I generally don't understand the conversations that go on around me in Korea, and perhaps that's a good thing.

But God Saved Us

I was on a bus with my wife, travelling out of the city centre early on a Saturday afternoon. It wasn't very busy and so the young South Asian woman talking on her mobile phone near me was more than audible. I probably wouldn't have listened but suddenly she caught my attention with what I thought was an unusual sentence:

"God saved us."

From her tone of voice, it was not merely a comment, but an assertion - an attempt to convince. But if that got my attention, the next line saw me become intently focused:

"I know it was supposed to explode, but God saved us."

This was evidently a more impassioned part of the unfolding conversation, and unfortunately after this I couldn't make out what else was said, though that could also have been because it wasn't in English any more.

The woman had two bags with her which looked like they came from a shopping trip, and somewhat to my relief she left the bus at the next stop with both of them. I don't know what I would have done if she had accidentally left one. My wife later confirmed word for word what young woman had said. What was supposed to have exploded, and why did God save them? I will never know.

There is of course, almost certain a completely rational explanation for this which doesn't involve terrorism. After all, it's a fairly stupid terrorist who talks about God and things exploding in the same sentence on a mobile phone with the Government listening - and I don't think Al-Qaeda have decided to start blowing up buses in the Northern English provinces on a wet Saturday afternoon, particularly in a city with one of the highest pro-rata Muslim populations in England. Whether there can be a perfectly innocent explanation for that conversation is a more open question. Either way, it served as a reminder of the dangerous times we are in and the possibility that the unexpected can happen anywhere, at any time.

Bangers and Thieves

I was walking in front of a busy row of shops in the city centre when there was a small bang on the floor by the side of me. Three girls, probably in their late teens, had thrown a small banger of some kind to the floor where it had exploded. Apparently this was hilarious. Although it made me jump a little, I didn't take it particularly personally because there were so many other people around that my wife and I were walking in single file in order to negotiate our way through the crowds. However, afterwards she told me that the banger had exploded just by her foot and she had taken it more personally because the girls were looking at her as they laughed.

A little later, inside a shopping mall, there were three similar bangs nearby as I waited at a store, and although I couldn't see the cause it seemed fairly clear that this was due to other people throwing small fireworks. Predictably, as the sound echoed within the building an overweight security guard calmly walked in the opposite direction as though he was oblivious to anything which might require him to do his job.

Perhaps this is a new trend. It seems incredible that these actions don't cause someone nearby to violently retaliate, and perhaps it will happen on occasion, but until the individual perpetrators are challenged they will feel free to continue their actions unchecked. Will that person ever be me? Probably not, but you can never tell with me. More worryingly, neither can I. As each year goes by the boundaries of anti-social behaviour seem to be rolled back even further and we seem powerless to stop it.

The night before I discovered that throwing small explosives at people's feet was the latest thing for youths to do, I was up late playing a computer game to work off some of the frustrations of a bad week. Just before I went to bed, somewhere between 2am and 2.15, I heard people talking outside on the street. They weren't particularly quiet, but since the kind of people who come back from a night out in the early hours of Saturday morning don't tend to be, I thought little of it. After all, there didn't seem to be any antagonism and aside from some raised voices and a couple of car doors slamming there was nothing to indicate that the house two doors above us had just been robbed. So I went to bed oblivious and gradually picked up the details as the next day unfolded and police worked their way around the street knocking on doors and collecting evidence. The thieves had evidently damaged a number of cars trying to break into them after they'd hit the house, but surprisingly my car was untouched. The number of robberies in our street is increasing.

Fourteen Days in May

The incidents related above represented my first two weeks back home, after which I stopped making notes on my experiences because it was simply too depressing. I also think I began not to notice, which is possibly even more disturbing. A number of people, similarly jaded with life in England, asked me why I'd returned, and I began to wonder myself. Sometimes it takes living outside of a country to come back to it and see it for what it is, and I finally realised what a mad place my country was. Korea, of course, is also quite mad, but in a different way, and it has the advantage of not being my country and therefore at some level, not being my problem.

I was angry when I came back to my country. Angry at how I'd had to fight to return with my wife. Yes, we won the case, but was I supposed to just forgive and forget? They never apologised. I suppose you wouldn't expect them to. But why not? The judge said they'd operated outside the law and our lives were put on hold, and put through considerable stress and financial expense, for six months. My father died and I didn't get to see him again. But they aren't sorry. And they don't care. Knowing how hard my Government had worked to keep me out of my country, I didn't settle back into life in England, and I suppose I was more than willing to see its faults, perhaps that was unfair, but that was the hand I was dealt.

Show Me The Money!

Along the way, the Credit Crisis confirmed that the UK was in serious trouble, trouble it would pay the price of for many years to come. Social problems will grow, taxes will increase, so I see no better world here in the long run. And I also paid a price. Some stock market traders have done well in the Crisis, and some have been wiped out. People I knew are gone. I've survived, but what was a job has turned into a war, fought around the clock against the global markets. In percentage terms I've outperformed most hedge-funds and pretty much every investment bank in the world, but I've concluded it's no way to live, and for a less stressful life would have happily returned to my previous life of IT contracting if the job situation wasn't deteriorating rapidly, which it is.

So beyond the health issues, and England's broken society, the financial situation leaves me with a choice. Or maybe it really doesn't. We have to follow the money. "Show me the money!" On the balance of probabilities, our financial future looks more certain in Korea than it does in England, so it looks like we have to return, and this time our stay will be open-ended. That makes it a different prospect, and in some ways a rather terrifying one. In all honesty, it is not the life I would have chosen, but it is the life I have, so I have to make the best of it and look forward to the opportunities I hope it will afford me. It promises to be uncertain and chaotic, with no guarantee of success. So no change for me there then.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Rear Window

My first residence in Busan was on the first floor of a 'jutaeg' - which while being the Korean word for house, has often been extended to become part of the title of small residential apartment blocks. Newer and larger apartment blocks tend to strive to be called something a little grander, such as 'Rich House' and 'White Palace', so anywhere you live with 'jutaeg' in the title might well in fact, by modern standards, be a rather small and dumpy apartment block. Which ours was. That was fine, because I was perfectly happy to have a small and rather dumpy life in this new country, although I didn't want my new home to be so dumpy that I'd feel like a contestant in the local version of Big Brother, so it was a relief that the windows were frosted.

We're quite big on curtains and blinds in England so I never quite got my head around the idea that hundreds of Korean apartments with their floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows happily expose the lives of their occupants to the outside world. When we moved, we made sure our new apartment was fitted with the blinds which the previous residents clearly felt they hadn't needed. It must be said that living fifteen floors up with a clear view of the mountains can lull you into a false sense of privacy, even though you sometimes wonder whether people armed with telescopes are out there somewhere. But what you probably don't expect is to suddenly hear a noise at the window and turn round to see a man dangling outside.

He actually wasn't washing the windows, but seemed to be vaguely cleaning or painting around them. Maybe all apartment blocks get this treatment, but it's the only time I ever saw it. The rope stayed outside our window for two days banging against it in the wind until we finally convinced the building supervisor to remove it.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Che Guevara

"Police arrested two communist activists, Kim Yong-Chan and Kim Jong Gon, on 11 July 2003 for possessing books about communism and for downloading from the Internet material including Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto." - Reporters Without Borders

So what are the chances of finding the thoughts of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara in a subway station book vending machine between legendary investment guru Warren Buffett and Mother Teresa? If you thought "not high" then think again:

But don't take this to mean that Glasnost has broken out in South Korea, because when I left two months ago my Internet connection was still being censored.

So how does Che end up in a South Korean subway station? Perhaps it's an oversight, or perhaps the material does not fall under the definition of 'books about communism' which need to be banned by the democratic Korean government, or perhaps they just think it's a story with a happy ending. Alternatively, it may be a manifestation of geography.

Many Westerners have been surprised to learn of the existence of the Hitler bars that once appeared in this part of the world, but Nazism happened a long way from Korea and arguably it was really someone else's problem. Recently in my own country, there was a case of an elected public figure who was wrongly alleged to have participated in a Nazi-themed orgy. Before the judgement was handed down there was considerable public revulsion and a confidence vote was held within his organisation in which, it was suggested, European members voted against him and Asian and African members voted in favour. Certainly, anecdotally I'm aware that Korean people didn't necessarily see the matter as being of any great significance. However, when I hypothetically asked how they would react if a public figure in their country was accused of dressing up as a Japanese soldier and performing acts with 'comfort women' an entirely different attitude emerged.

I should add though, that if there is a historical and geographical gulf of understanding between myself as a Westerner and Korean people, it's not simply an inevitable division along racial lines; my family was selling a piano some years ago and the elderly gentlemen who eventually bought it for their club initially phoned and opened up their conversation with the question "It's not Japanese is it?" They'd been in Singapore during the war.

Personally, while Che Guevara didn't make the wall of my student flat back at University, unlike those of quite a few of the people I knew, I'd still like to think my book-vending machine discovery is a positive sign of progress in Korea.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Ride the Wild Surf

On our last weekend in Busan, we met up with our friends for the last time and had a large and seemingly never-ending buffet meal at one of those equally large and seemingly never-ending restaurants which specialise in this type of experience. The obvious thing to do after adding a whole new layer of fat to oneself is to psychologically offset this with a trip to the beach - which will do little to reduce the effects of the culinary pummelling you've just put yourself through. So we made our way to Songjeong Beach - by car of course - where we could breathe in the fresh air and occasionally walk from our stationary location by the sand to one of the small huts on the other side of the coastal road where yet more food and hot drinks were available. It was cold, largely overcast and fairly windy, which at the time didn't seem very pleasant, but now that Busan is oppressively hot again I'm sure a lot of people are missing it.

I've been to Songjeong before at night, but I never recall seeing it in daylight, so I was surprised to discover it's something of a gathering place for Busan's surfing community. Aside from the surfboards on the beach, the Korean equivalent of a surf shack overlooked the bay, and from the wetsuits drying off outside, it seemed to have been a busy day.

Soon I started to pick out a few figures standing in the water trying to catch that perfect wave, even if it appeared that as far as Songjeong was concerned, that meant rather small and possibly hardly worth the effort. But maybe we just arrived at a bad time - it wasn't long before most of the surfers pulled their boards out of the water and headed for the road. This was the point I had to re-evaluate my impression of what I had to assumed to be the Busan surfing scene, because as they came towards us I realised they were '외국인' - waegugin/foreigners. It's a fact that in my seventeen months in Busan I actually only met one foreigner who I talked with for around fifteen minutes, so I claim no expertise into the 'waegugin' lifestyle here - and I have to admit this was not my stereotypical image of what the ex-pat community were getting up to in their spare time. My surprise would only become greater as I watched one of the waegugin a little later, proceed to hail a taxi - with his surfboard - and much to much to my incredulity manage to fit it inside said vehicle with an apparently equally unphased taxi driver. Getting around Busan by taxi as a foreigner isn't always easy. Doing it with a surfboard deserves some respect.

I kept scanning the sea in the hope of catching a shot of a surfer riding a decent wave, but the conditions were clearly not going to allow those remaining to ride a wave dramatically into the beach, so the photo on the right above is as good as it got. But I added the experience to my list of 'things you can do in Busan that you can't do in Seoul', which I started mentally keeping for reasons which might eventually be revealed.

Friday, June 20, 2008


There's an island near where we used to live called Eulsukdo, and aside from a somewhat odd line in statues it basically serves as a park for local people. There are a couple of football pitches, bicycles for hire, a speed skating track and a drive-in movie theatre, which shows films in the evening.

We don't really have drive-in cinemas in England (I gather there's one in the entire country), so I was sufficiently curious about the experience that when I finally had the chance to go with friends I couldn't turn it down, even though I was dubious about being able to see, let alone enjoy, a movie from the back seat of a car.

Watching the screen may not be at the forefront of other visitors' minds however. Life for dating young Koreans can be tough. Living at home with parents right up to the point of getting married (and sometimes beyond) is common, and in a city of 3.6 million people squashed together in the narrow gaps between mountains privacy, like clean air, can be a commodity in short supply. So there are a lot of love hotels for locals to stay in and DVD bangs for customers who are not that interested in seeing films. Even though by comparison a drive-in movie theatre seems like a less desirable location to get to know someone more intimately, apparently it can still serve this purpose. I suppose it's cheaper and less potentially scandalous than a love hotel, and unlike the hotels and DVD bangs there's much less chance of being filmed by the owners.

The outdoor cinema on Eulsukdo usually shows Korean films, so once we decided to go before we left Korea we were lucky that an American movie I could understand was scheduled a couple of days before our departure. Once parked, we tuned our radio to the special frequency for the audio, and with no adverts or any of the advertising spam and cattle herding that normally accompanies a trip to regular cinema, we watched the recently released Iron Man in our own private vehicular world.

Despite my doubts, as an experience it seems drive-in movies are surprisingly watchable, even if - and you couldn't make this up - the movie theatre at Eulsukdo is right underneath the flightpath to the nearby Gimhae Airport, and our viewing was accompanied by the screaming engines of planes desperately trying to maintain a straight approach against some evidently vicious crosswinds. Every few minutes.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Hustler

Shortly before we left Korea, very shortly in fact - it was the day before, we travelled out of Busan to a nearby ski resort in the mountains where a pool and billiards tournament was being held. This was not yet another invented distraction to avoid the horrors of packing, but a genuine family obligation - Korean Brother was one of the competitors, and having made it through to the last 32 from a field of over 500 entrants, we could no longer avoid going and lending our support for the last day.

Since we lived in the south-western edges of the city of Busan, leaving it via its northern extremities involved an hour's travelling on the entire length of the subway line to Nopodong, as made famous by a thousand 'the train for Nopodong, Nopodong is now arriving' announcements, spoken in a disembodied voice I always imagined to sound like that of a computer plotting to take over the world in-between disseminating transit messages to the public.

Somewhere around the PNU district, the subway emerges from underground and the urban jungle dissipates so that by the time the train for Nopodong arrives you feel like you've been deposited in the countryside. A long road leading off into the uninhabited distance immediately outside the station does nothing to dispel the image. There are of course though, still the street vendors - feeding the small pocket of humanity still surviving by the entrance. Does anything else exist in Nopodong? Probably, but I have no evidence for it.

It was six-twenty in the morning when we set off, and as the train has neared its destination, the number of Buddhist worshippers preparing for a full day of devotions in their grey outfits had peaked. By the time we reached our destination, the few who remained headed off in the same direction as us to the remoter temples, though it is not spiritual enlightenment we were in search of, but rather a bus. The bus took us to an eerily-deserted town called Samseong where we switched to our final destination high up into the mountains.

Amidst the now bare ski slopes, the large main building of the Eden Valley Resort had an MBC ESPN outside broadcast truck parked in front of it. It was there to cover the finals, as it seems they are one of the largest amateur competitions in the country. Inside, out of ski season and devoid of tourists, the building was eerily quiet, save for a few esoteric-looking individuals - characters one and all I suspect - clutching cues, cue-holders and a variety of pool-related equipment. I felt like I'd stumbled onto the set of one of those subculture documentary films. It was clear that for some of the players remaining this was just another stop on the small-time competition circuit.

In the hall where the games were taking place there were two sets of tables - down one side these were conventional six-pocket affairs for the game of pool, and down the other, pocketless ones. It's taken me a long time to understand the existence of the latter, which are often the majority constituent of your average Korean 'pool hall'. For a long time, I assumed that a Korean version of billiards was played on them, given that there are only three balls, one red, one white and one, admittedly, yellow. But in fact it is a little more complicated than that - the Korean game is called 3-Cushion, which is a version of the game derived from Carom billiards, and essentially the requirement is to hit a ball, then three cushions, and then the final ball in order to score a point. This, it transpires, requires a great deal of geometrical thought. It's extremely difficult and widely popular. Korean Brother is quite good at it, and it was this game he was playing in the competition.

The remaining contestants in both games were mostly male, with a couple of females. Curiously, there seemed to be a contingent of German-speaking Koreans although I doubted the prize money - which amounted to five million won for the winner - justified entry from overseas. Korean Brother won his first game to enter the last sixteen, but in the game which would have put him into the quarter-finals, he met a particularly tough opponent and lost by a point in a very narrow game. It seemed a very creditable performance and by virtue of his points he was placed 9th overall, but he was disappointed - it transpired he'd come fourth in the same tournament two years previously. Even so, there was still some prize money and it wasn't such a bad amount.

I discovered on the way back that Samseong taxi drivers only consider their meters to be advisory. The driver who'd brought us had all-but demanded 50% more than the meter price on the grounds that as we were in the middle of nowhere he wasn't going to be able to pick anyone up on the way back. And it was clear that if we didn't pay we might 'have problems' finding a driver for the return trip. So by the time a driver was called to take us back, it was a given that he was going to be demanding more than the mandated price. Still, at least there was some haggling. While the taxi drivers in Busan have a reputation for taking some foreigners for a ride in more ways than one, there's no doubt that those from Samseong have taken the concept to an altogether more blatant level. This is one Korean town we don't need to come back to, I thought.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Flipside of Dominick Hide

We left our apartment in Busan for the final time on the morning of 14th May at 11am, and began our long journey back to England which, while relatively cheap, included a 17-hour wait between flights in Japan.

Scanned and Disintegrated

The journey began badly at Gimhae Airport where I lost a USB memory stick with all my passwords on it. I had to put it through the scanner in a tray, and then pull my laptop out of a bag to go through afterwards. When I got to the other side there was, mysteriously, no memory stick. Oddly, at first the security worker said he'd put it in my bag, but when I made more of a fuss and started emptying the contents of the bag to search for it, he changed his story to say that he'd never seen it at all. How does something disappear going through an airport scanner in a tray when there doesn't seem to be anyone else around? My files were encrypted but it still meant that on principle my first job once back home was to change all my passwords. Not a good start to the journey, and a lesson learned.

Memo: Narita Airport Completely Shuts At Night

While Typhoon Rammasun had missed a direct hit on the Japanese mainland, its effects were nevertheless felt as we endured a rather turbulent descent to Tokyo Narita. I was unsure if I could leave the airport with my soon-to-expire passport, so we hadn't booked a hotel in advance, but fortunately my attempt to enter the country passed off without a hitch, and for the first time in seventeen months, I found myself primarily responsible for communicating with the outside world, on the questionable basis that my Japanese language ability was better than my wife's.

A ten-minute bus-ride through busy urban roads in the heavy rain took us to a nearby hotel which despite our detour through real-Japan ironically transpired to be near the end of one of the airport's runways. We got a room, and armed only with a Visa card and no Yen, we ventured back to the airport later in the evening to scavenge for food. Now I make no attempt at passing myself of as some urbane and seasoned traveller, and therefore feel little guilt in admitting that in all my years of Japanese experiences I had missed out on one very important aspect of travelling within the country - Tokyo Narita Airport, the country's main point of entry and exit, shuts at night. In fact, while the last flights were still scheduled to make their way in and out at around eleven, I challenge you to find anywhere to eat at 10pm - everything was already closed.

You Know It's Bad When People Start Gasping

As we slowly climbed out of Narita the next day while the lingering periphery of the typhoon continued to dump a large amount of rain on anyone foolish enough to be outside below it, the British Airways staff bravely attempted to serve food what might best be described as a variable-gravity environment.

We landed at London Heathrow Wednesday afternoon British time, and for the first time since I left I suddenly and depressingly understood all the conversations going on around me. Sometimes it doesn't take you long to remember why living in a place where you don't can be a good thing.

Chest X-Rays

Another one to file away under Beautiful Korea, Wonderful Immigration - my wife was briefly diverted by the authorities who needed to take a chest X-ray of her before allowing her into the country. Except that we'd arrived amidst the ongoing Terminal 5 fiasco, so the X-ray machines weren't working and they had to take our details down for later harassment with a pen and paper, because neither were the computers.

Yes, just because we had to fight our way back into the country, doesn't mean to say that my wife isn't going to be treated with suspicion and hostility by the establishment. Welcome to the United Kingdom. The Health Service caught up with my wife two weeks later, made a great fuss about setting up an appointment for an X-ray, and once there - after over an hour of travelling and waiting - they asked her two inconsequential questions and told her that the actual X-ray would be done somewhere else, on another day. And it's for this staggering inefficiency we pay billions in taxes every year. Welcome back to the NHS.

One flight later we reached Manchester and the final leg of our journey began - down motorways where drivers didn't change lane every five seconds and through a strangely flattened landscape devoid of the mountains which have been our constant companions during our time in Korea.

Civilisation Is An Internet Connection

I don't intend to write in this blog about my experiences in England, but I do wish to illustrate some of the realities of the reverse culture shock which is re-assimilating back into your own society.

My Internet experiences in Korea have not been trouble free, but despite the problems one constant has been the level of customer service which has backed it up, even if they couldn't always resolve our issues. British Telecom wanted to charge us £155 to fit an extra telephone socket in our attic for our ADSL connection - which is basically almost as much as an entire year of 100 megabit Internet cost in Korea - where Korea Telecom would, of course, fit extra sockets free of charge if required. We eventually got it done at half the price by an electrician, but it was still a shock, and since they didn't seem to want it British Telecom didn't get our custom.

So now I'm on an approximately 5 megabit connection and missing my 100 Korean megabits very much. To be fair, a 20 megabit service is available to some people in the UK via cable company Virgin Media, but since they think that net neutrality is 'a load of b****cks', and analysing customer browsing habits to insert adverts and bandwidth-throttling are acceptable practices it's not an option. At least we're aware of them though. I don't know whether this kind of behaviour would provoke riots in Korea or whether the people there are generally so naive about Internet security that they wouldn't realise.

Civilisation is an Internet connection, and one that is capable of the speed advertised and that doesn't involve profiling me for commercial or other reasons at the same time.

That Didn't Take Long

So we broke our computers out of storage and needed to buy some more technical equipment, including a couple of new USB memory sticks. When the box arrived with one stick missing this led to a little unpleasantness from the UK online retailer Ebuyer, which I've used for years, who sent a message which seemed to imply some dishonesty, perhaps on my part. Worse, it was obviously a standard email, so by design this is how they talk to their customers. Would have been so rude if this had happened in Korea? I can't see it happening personally.

It must be said though, we have more consumer rights in the UK and that is a comfort in the face of the state of war which usually exists between most British companies and the people who reluctantly have to buy things from them. I've resolved to video record all future parcel openings as I have better things to do with my time than debate package contents with companies.

But after seventeen months of speaking very little, bad online retail experiences notwithstanding, I found myself eagerly bantering with shop staff, which I'm sure I never used to do. Perhaps I'm like an almost drowned man breaking the surface and gasping for air, glad to speak to anyone. Well, apart from Ebuyer, British Telecom and Virgin Media anyway.

Food, Birds and Fish

It's good to be back in England and to see friends and family again. The food I've been pining for didn't taste as good as I'd imagined it would, but even the Tesco-bought frozen pizza surpassed almost all the Korean pizzas I tried.

I can actually hear birds singing in the garden outside, the air is wonderfully fresh especially after it rains, and I can enter the kitchen and look into the sink without fear of seeing several dozen tiny dead fish staring back at me from the plug-hole, which believe me, is a huge relief.

The Flipside of Dominick Hide

While it's only been three weeks, Korea is already a rapidly fading memory with my English life proving to be a hectic one so far, a fact not helped by the power unit on my computer blowing up and a succession of IT problems that I'm only just starting to get on top of. I have seventeen months of mail to sort through, a house to probably sell and a whole range of other tasks which are going to take some time and effort to complete - welcome home. I've decided that I will try and write up my backlogged blog entries and upload my remaining photos though - while it might seem so distant now it's almost like all these things happened to someone else - maybe I need to maintain some connection to it while I get my bearings in my new, old country. Meanwhile I'm getting back to studying Korean every day, because I know it's important to try and keep up to my language skills, but it certainly will be harder now I'm not exposed to the environment. Perhaps when I return to Korea I will have some kind of fluency in the language - one must have goals.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Seven Days in May

Inevitably, the order of our little republic has broken down as our time in Korea has reached its conclusion, and we have both liberally indulged ourselves, while forces beyond our control simultaneously conspired against us in our final days in May.

There has been the rush of buying presents to take with us, winding down our work, saying goodbye to the friends we have made in this country, and a last desperate attempt to somehow fit a few more experiences into my time here, which relative to my life back in England, was already more than I could ever write about, let alone fully comprehend. Broken cameras, almost broken ankles, unexpected medical complications and billiard tournaments have, in the end, been obstacles which have not stopped us rushing around Busan every day accomplishing our goals, but it has meant there was much more to say about my time here than I managed to document.

The imminent overthrow of my Korean life and its enforced replacement by a British one, has served to concentrate my mind in a way that living in Korea without the threat of change has not. I have been asked by friends if I am looking forward to going back home, but as I have written here before, when you find your own Government acting outside the law, and have to fight it in front of a judge to uphold the freedom you believed to be self-evident, it doesn't quite feel like home any more. But it goes further than that. After all this time, my old life seems like it existed a long time ago, and I find myself struggling to remember the details. What did I used to eat? Where did I used to go, and what did I used to do? These are all questions which can no longer be automatically answered, but instead require rummaging through thoughts which have been buried under layers of Korean experiences. I will of course adjust, and then it will be the turn of the Korean memories to sink beneath the layer of confusion which encountering British bureaucracy tends to create in the mind. I always knew this would be the case, which is one of the main reasons I started writing this blog all those months ago.

Another thing which has concentrated my mind has been a medical condition. I have been a little unwell of late and I was going to wait until I went back to England to get a diagnosis, but instead we made the time to walk into a small specialist hospital a couple of days ago. I was told what I probably have fifteen minutes later having been tested almost immediately. While it's not necessarily serious it isn't to be treated lightly either, and it's going to take time to fight it. I was told that the condition often comes about through either stress, exhaustion or heavy drinking. While the latter is almost a running theme in Korea, ironically this is the one reason out of the three that I can categorically rule out. The other two have been part of my life for years though, so clearly I need to have a re-think. But the immediate lesson is the immediacy of a diagnosis and treatment that would have taken weeks to initiate in the UK. Someone once said that Britain is the best country to be sick in if you're poor, but Korea is the best country to be sick in if you're not, and since I'm in the 90% rather than the bottom ten, I'm about to swap fast and great medical care for extremely slow care of moderate quality, which is unfortunate.

So am I looking forward to going home? My answer then is no. I've enjoyed my time in this country, and the lifestyle I've had here as a consequence. I've enjoyed it much more than the life I had before I arrived. I've read that there are two types of expatriate, those that live abroad out of necessity and look forward to their return, and those that realise that they never want to go back. I've realised I probably fall into the latter category. I do of course miss friends and family, and there are certain foods I miss, but the pull of the experiences of the last seventeen months are strong. It's not to say that everything here is OK. It isn't, and clearly some people's experience will vary. I haven't taught English here but I'm well aware that it can prove incredibly frustrating, and while I have felt free to walk the streets alone at night - even as a foreigner - in a way I couldn't do in my own city in England, I know that this does not necessarily hold true for foreign women. In the end though, in all my time here I have met and talked to one foreigner, and that was only for fifteen minutes, so aside from that and a brief appearance on a Seoul Podcast I can't speak in any detail of the wider foreigner experience.

I hope I've tried to portray a positive image of foreigners during my time moving within Korean society, and insofar as one of our friends says that she would now consider dating foreigners, and a couple of friends have said they are no longer scared of foreigners, I guess I've have had some influence. But despite my integration with Korean society, I've failed to integrate with it. I have a working vocabulary of 600 words which means I can often make myself understood, but often can't follow the conversations going on around me in plain-form Busan accent and dialect. Busan is not the easiest place to learn Korean, but I've spent a lot of time working here and that's something I wish hadn't happened. If I could do it all over again, I'd have foregone the work, faced the financial consequences, and strived for fluency and the ability to truly function independently in this country, rather than rely on my companions to do the talking.

I have to go back to England and circumstances mean that whatever I think right now, I might never return to live in Korea. Life is complicated. I have to keep studying the language and ironically, now I'm not spending my life running around Busan I may have more time to do it. Certainly, should I ever return here, my goal is to return with some kind of fluency in Korean; if I were to return without this I think I would be increasingly unhappy here despite my experience before now. It's already been playing on my mind a lot in recent months.

I don't know what the future holds and clearly my priorities are about to change. I will probably return to this blog to write up some of the experiences which got lost amidst the chaos, but this will be my last entry in Korea. I started writing this mostly for myself and didn't expect to end up with around a hundred people a day reading it, which was a bit of a shock and not necessarily in a positive way. Still, I hope that you have enjoyed reading it and that it has provided you into some insight into Korean life and one person's time in Korea.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Exit Napoleon Pursued by Rabbits

I am of course an actor, playing a part, and I have been since I got here. I always knew this was the way it would be, and it's one of the reasons I chose to title every entry in this blog after a dramatic work. Free will or fate? You know my answer, and as Laplace's demon has inevitably revealed itself as my time in Busan unfolded, I have followed the script as it has been delivered to me, trying my best to fade into the background as an extra, but all the while feeling I was being watched as though I was walking centre-stage.

Standing outside the theatre on the Kyungsung University campus where a film crew is hovering, I felt the inevitability of them being drawn towards me, and a minute later I am once again stood next to a student union building giving an interview - different country, same modus operandi - smile, be diplomatic, don't start a riot.

What do I think of the festival so far? Let me explain how my life works here - "There's a mime, do you want to go? OK." Context often comes in retrospect, and I'm usually far too busy to worry about something until it happens. So I've seen some banners for the Busan International Performing Arts Festival, quickly put two and two together, and explain how this is my first event so I really don't have a view yet, but how I'm sure it's great for Busan and a good way of promoting the city internationally. Please don't ask any deeper questions about what I'm here to watch because the first time I glanced at the script was a couple of hours ago and I certainly haven't studied it in any detail.

We are here to see Exit Napolean Pursued By Rabbits, performed - I discover once I get home - by Nola Rae, or rather, Nola Rae MBE - making her a Member of the Order of the British Empire, which is more than I'll ever be, particularly if I keep taking the Empire to court. Which is all to say that Nola Rae is moderately well-known, and certainly well-respected back home in the Empire, so this then, is no ordinary mime.

Before this revelation I'm just hoping that attending doesn't transpire to be a mistake. I've arrived in a group with twelve other people and I've been told the mime is British. so even though this wasn't my idea I can't help feeling that like everything else which is British in Korea, it reflects on me to some extent. I needn't have worried though, because the Koreans apparently loved it, despite some finding themselves dragged onto the stage. They should be used to it anyway, because I have yet to attend anything here where there members of the audience weren't conscripted as part of the entertainment. I always try my best to appear invisible at these points; I'm already on the stage in Korea without being on it literally, and I only want to carry the metaphor so far. But here's a tip if you don't want your fifteen minutes of fame here, don't sit on the front row. I suppose that's life all over. Participation eventually extended to the whole audience, which evidently wasn't to The Times of London's liking, but as Ms. Rae made puppets of us all from the stage, I thought surely this was the point. Did we refuse to stand, to gesture, to make fools of ourselves or was it easier to go along with arbitrary and illogical diktats of someone commanding the majority? After the show, it was our hosts turn to be on the spot as an audience member suddenly burst out that it was Children's Day in Korea the next day and 'requested' that the performer pose for pictures with all the children in the audience. Exit Napoleon had demonstrated how quickly one dictator can be fall and be replaced by another, perhaps in more ways than one.

I've never sat through 75 minutes of mime before, unless you count two years I worked under an old boss, so I wasn't sure it would appeal to me, although it held my interest - and not just because the material seemed vaguely autobiographical. But while we cycled through various European dictators some uncertainty was voiced to me afterwards as to how many of the references the local audience picked up on. It's easy to grow up with a Euro-centric view of history and not appreciate how the 'important global events' taught in school turn out to be merely important European ones, with little coverage of, or meaning to, our Asian peers. In the question and answer session which followed the performance someone asked about the genesis of the work and Nola Rae commented on the importance of opposing dictators, a message which does, however, have a particular resonance here.

On the way out the film crew caught me again and once again I offered my diplomatic answers. For some reason, this time they were quite keen for me to say 'something unknown... fighting!' to the camera, where the something unknown is presumably the name of whatever group they belonged to. So one moment we are condemning dictators and the next we are shouting 'Korea Fighting!' or whatever other cause you want to rally people's base emotions to. It seems we walk a fine line indeed. I did it of course; it was in the script.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place

Today is Parents' Day in South Korea - but it's not a public holiday, unlike Children's Day. This year, the occasion has approximately coincided with our departure from this country, so it was a given that we would visit Korean Grandfather on Namhae Island to pay our respects before leaving.

During my time here I have worked long hours, so even though I've been here since October 2006, and perhaps despite the impression 339 entries in this blog might create to the contrary, my experiences in Korea are more limited than I would have liked them to be. So I'm counting off each one of the days left before I leave and trying to get the most out of it. Under the circumstances, I was not terribly pleased to have to spend one of them on a Namhae trip. But that's family obligations for you - they are usually non-negotiable.

Unfortunately I had been quite ill the day before Namhae, and the next morning nothing had changed. But that doesn't make any difference. You go, and if you don't, you'd better have a good excuse - like being dead for example. On the other hand, Korean Brother is back in Busan from Jeju Island where he works these days. Curiously he did not accompany us, and at the bus station I made the observation to my wife:

"Korean Brother not coming then"

And it is ironic. I rather fear I have become first son by proxy in my Korean family and this status may confer on me the same kind of responsibilities which have seen Korean Father uproot himself to Namhae to live with his father in perpetuity, because in this society, that's the kind of thing you can find yourself morally committed to do. I'm never going to go that far, but the big question in my mind during my time in Korea was whether the responsibilities and obligations which come with being a member of a Korean family were going to cause me to snap and create an ugly cultural incident from which there's no real recovery. Sometimes I think I'm not cut out for this.

We set off for Namhae just before 9am, and arrived at midday via the customarily bumpy bus with faulty (i.e. non-existent) air-con which meant that the heavy smell of Kimchi only got worse as the journey progressed. The urban sprawl of Busan finally disappeared, and gradually the highway makes way for narrower roads passing by field after field of Korean agricultural workers of moderate means, before you finally hit Namhae, which is where you start seeing the local Hell's Angels in earnest.

We arrived at Korean Grandfather's house at midday, and Korean Mother presented our gifts of expensive Samsung Insurance guaranteed Ginseng before we ate lunch together outside - so when I say together, I mean with the flies.

There came a point at which I was sat alone on a wooden veranda at the edge of the enclosed yard, and despite the heat, flies and strange insects which Korean Father insists have invaded Korea, it all seemed very peaceful. And then it struck me why - this could have been the first time in months that there was nothing I could do apart from sit and absorb the scenery, and it marked a real change from working and rushing around from one place to the next which has pretty much been my entire life in this country. Perhaps Korean Father is unhappy about living in Namhae but I left the island thinking that there were worse places to spend one's retirement. But then again, maybe I need the chaos of Busan, and Korean Father is the same.

After a short walk around the local farmers' fields where they were growing cacti amongst other things, we left at 2.30pm, and got back to the city just after six. Which meant we'd spent almost seven hours travelling for a two and a half hour visit. But sometimes that's what you have to do.